The president accused American congresswomen of hating America. He said, “This is about love for America. Certain people HATE our Country.” He quoted Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy who said, “In America, if you hate our country, you are free to leave.” Republicans yelled “send her back” – referring to Ilhan Omar, a congresswoman born in Somalia.
The “love it or leave it” dichotomy is dangerous and ridiculous. Who are the real Americans who get to tell others to leave?
A country is not a simple thing. It is a combination of land, people, history, culture and laws. That combination is complicated and constantly changing. It is too large simply to love or to hate.
Where would we look to see the America we are supposed to love? Perhaps the poets can help.
“America, The Beautiful” is a likely source. This mythic hymn was written by a lesbian college professor with socialist sympathies, Katharine Lee Bates. She imagined America’s good as crowned with brotherhood “from sea to shining sea.”
The hope of brotherhood seems quaint today for an America that stretches beyond the seas to include Hawaii, Alaska and Puerto Rico. Our history is too complicated to be beautiful. It includes slavery and Jim Crow. And the Indians, Mormons and Japanese Americans were asked to “love it or leave it” – with brutal results. But Americans also invent, create and liberate. We are entrepreneurs and emancipators.
As Walt Whitman might say, America contains multitudes. Whitman suggested that America is a poem. He spoke of the U.S. in the plural. He said, “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” Like any great work of poetry, there is no single interpretation of its meaning. Sometimes it is beautiful. And sometimes the republic goes bananas.
To call America a poem may sound abstract. But Abraham Lincoln said something similar when he explained that this is “a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The U.S. was willed into existence by the words of the Declaration of Independence. It exists only as long as those words inspire.
This new nation contained diverse new people who all – except for the Indians and the slaves – chose to come here from somewhere else. Whitman wrote, “Here is not merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations.” Whitman suggested that to love a thing as large as America was only possible for a soul that was as big as the country.
Lincoln and Whitman harbored racist ideas, typical of American culture, even among the abolitionists and emancipators. But the nation continued to grow and learn. New voices were heard. The poem was rewritten.
James Baldwin was a black, queer author who stood with Martin Luther King at the Lincoln Memorial when King explained his dream of America. Baldwin said, “I love America more than any other country in the world and exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” Maya Angelou, another new voice, wrote the poem “America” in the 1970s. She said, “The gold of her promise has never been mined.” She worried, “Her proud declarations are leaves on the wind.”
This nation contains King, Baldwin and Angelou as well as Lincoln, Whitman and Bates. It also contains Trump and Omar. It is impossible to simplify this multitude or say simply, love it or leave it.
Or perhaps we misunderstand the meaning of love. When love is conceived as a line in the sand, the soul shrinks. Love looks to the future. It is expansive and inclusive. Love heals wounds instead of picking scabs. Love of country, if such a thing makes sense, ought to be poetic and creative rather than accusatory, shallow and mean.
The challenge today is to enlarge our souls. It may seem impossible to love a country that includes both Trump and Omar. But we might begin by asking for modesty, decency and civility. The poem we are writing is larger than us. We need leaders whose vision of America transcends what Whitman called “the lice of politics.” So far, no one is leaving. But we are all waiting to be inspired by a more loving country.
Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala